Symposium: The Conservative Mind at 60

When the first edition of The Conservative Mind hit the book shelves on May 11, 1953, neither its author nor its publisher expected it to do as well as it did. And, doing “well” is a gross understatement. Nearly every major newspaper and periodical in the English-speaking world reviewed the book, sometimes twice. The seven editions of this seminal book have sold over a million copies during the last six decades. The book established Kirk as the founder of modern conservatism. Or if one regards this statement as hyperbole, for there were a number of writers moving in the same direction, he can at least be regarded as conservatism’s most articulate proponent in the 1950s. “The Conservative Mind was crucial in establishing the cause as a valid intellectual enterprise,” journalist Sidney Blumenthal claimed in 1986. Whatever one might think of Kirk’s take on western civilization, Blumenthal continued, The Conservative Mind “provided for the first time a scholarly backdrop against which the conservatives could see themselves doing honor to philosophical fathers.”

If one enters the book hoping to find a number of political prescriptions and a platform to solve the many ills of the world or, even less ambitiously, the ills of the United States, the reader will suffer various degrees of confusion and disappointment. In his definition of conservative, the poetic, literary, and theological superseded the political. As the author explained to Regnery in 1952, he did not think a writer or publisher should “exclude political essays.” Instead, he continued, the author and publisher should “recognize the greater importance, in literature as in life, of religion, ethics, and beauty.” Just as he feared, many early early reviewers focused on conservatism as a political term, ignoring what Kirk considered most important: the conservation of the best of the past. Not even the humanist students of Irving Babbitt had laid “stress enough upon the ethical aspect of” The Conservative Mind, he worried. They, especially, should have understood him better. “Politics, I never tire of saying, is the diversion of the quarter-educated, and I do try to transcend pure politics in my book,” he confided to Regnery.

Far from being a work of mere politics, The Conservative Mind is restorative, poetic, and hagiographic. Kirk himself noted that he considered The Conservative Mind as a “prolonged essay in definition.” Always and everywhere, Kirk privileged dogma (in its proper understanding) over systems. Hence, Kirk brought together a number of seemingly disparate figures from Burke to the present of 1953 in what some might challenge as act of blatant Platonic myth making or post-modern tinkering. It would be far more accurate, though, to look at the figures of The Conservative Mind through the eyes of Alban Butler than through, say, a Walter Berns. For, each person who appears in The Conservative Mind manifests some eternal and universal truth or truths in his finite and particular lifetime. Each person is, as Kirk loved to state, a “principle of proliferating variety.”

John C. Calhoun’s life and actions bear some truths, for example, while Abraham Lincoln’s manifests different ones. Each, though, remains vital to the conservative lineage, and it would be foolish and arrogant to expect that either Calhoun or Lincoln had every answer to every problem, or that one offered every solution to his age as well as to ours. The timeless truth one person exemplified need not be the same another did. Just as one should distrust systems in politics, the same should be true in a study of the human person. Given the vast, often incomprehensible differences among human beings, most likely a multiplicity of finite persons would reveal a variety of infinite truths, some seemingly contradictory, others simply incompatible. Each human person, Kirk argued, is ultimately “God’s utopia.”

“In every age, society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God,” Kirk explained in 1974.

While one might regard Kirk as a pagan Stoic en route to orthodox Christianity in 1953, when The Conservative Mind first appeared, his beliefs regarding a universal truth (God or some divine principle such as the Logos) and the particular (the human person) never fundamentally changed. Indeed, Kirk clarified and elaborated as he aged, but his thought processes regarding the eternal and the immediate were evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Just as one should think of The Conservative Mind more in line with Butler than Berns, the same can be said of Kirk’s view of the human person. Kirk’s view, importantly, resembles a pre-Vatican II personalism far more than it does a Hayekian methodological individualism. It is deeply universal while never diminishing the beauty of the individual human person. In Kirk’s view, Adam is as important as the last man. Indeed, Kirk’s view celebrated the distinctive person as a finite being made in the image of the infinite. This was, after all, the principle of proliferating variety. 

Bradley J. Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair and Professor of American Studies at Hillsdale College. He is also Co-founder and Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.